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  • richardmitnick 3:32 pm on October 6, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , MIT, ,   

    From MIT: “Fast-moving magnetic particles could enable new form of data storage” 

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    October 2, 2017
    David Chandler

    1
    “One of the biggest missing pieces” needed to make skyrmions a practical data-storage medium, Geoffrey Beach says, was a reliable way to create them when and where they were needed. “So this is a significant breakthrough.” Illustration by Moritz Eisebitt.

    Recently discovered phenomenon could provide a way to bypass the limits to Moore’s Law.

    New research has shown that an exotic kind of magnetic behavior discovered just a few years ago holds great promise as a way of storing data — one that could overcome fundamental limits that might otherwise be signaling the end of “Moore’s Law,” which describes the ongoing improvements in computation and data storage over recent decades.

    Rather than reading and writing data one bit at a time by changing the orientation of magnetized particles on a surface, as today’s magnetic disks do, the new system would make use of tiny disturbances in magnetic orientation, which have been dubbed “skyrmions.” These virtual particles, which occur on a thin metallic film sandwiched against a film of different metal, can be manipulated and controlled using electric fields, and can store data for long periods without the need for further energy input.

    In 2016, a team led by MIT associate professor of materials science and engineering Geoffrey Beach documented the existence of skyrmions, but the particles’ locations on a surface were entirely random. Now, Beach has collaborated with others to demonstrate experimentally for the first time that they can create these particles at will in specific locations, which is the next key requirement for using them in a data storage system. An efficient system for reading that data will also be needed to create a commercializable system.

    The new findings are reported this week in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, in a paper by Beach, MIT postdoc Felix Buettner, and graduate student Ivan Lemesh, and 10 others at MIT and in Germany.

    The system focuses on the boundary region between atoms whose magnetic poles are pointing in one direction and those with poles pointing the other way. This boundary region can move back and forth within the magnetic material, Beach says. What he and his team found four years ago was that these boundary regions could be controlled by placing a second sheet of nonmagnetic heavy metal very close to the magnetic layer. The nonmagnetic layer can then influence the magnetic one, with electric fields in the nonmagnetic layer pushing around the magnetic domains in the magnetic layer. Skyrmions are little swirls of magnetic orientation within these layers, Beach adds.

    The key to being able to create skyrmions at will in particular locations, it turns out, lay in material defects. By introducing a particular kind of defect in the magnetic layer, the skyrmions become pinned to specific locations on the surface, the team found. Those surfaces with intentional defects can then be used as a controllable writing surface for data encoded in the skyrmions. The team realized that instead of being a problem, the defects in the material could actually be beneficial.

    “One of the biggest missing pieces” needed to make skyrmions a practical data-storage medium, Beach says, was a reliable way to create them when and where they were needed. “So this is a significant breakthrough,” he explains, thanks to work by Buettner and Lemesh, the paper’s lead authors. “What they discovered was a very fast and efficient way to write” such formations.

    Because the skyrmions, basically little eddies of magnetism, are incredibly stable to external perturbations, unlike the individual magnetic poles in a conventional magnetic storage device, data can be stored using only a tiny area of the magnetic surface — perhaps just a few atoms across. That means that vastly more data could be written onto a surface of a given size. That’s an important quality, Beach explains, because conventional magnetic systems are now reaching limits set by the basic physics of their materials, potentially bringing to a halt the steady improvement of storage capacities that are the basis for Moore’s Law. The new system, once perfected, could provide a way to continue that progress toward ever-denser data storage, he says.

    The system also potentially could encode data at very high speeds, making it efficient not only as a substitute for magnetic media such as hard discs, but even for the much faster memory systems used in Random Access Memory (RAM) for computation.

    But what is still lacking is an effective way to read out the data once it has been stored. This can be done now using sophisticated X-ray magnetic spectroscopy, but that requires equipment too complex and expensive to be part of a practical computer memory system. The researchers plan to explore better ways of getting the information back out, which could be practical to manufacture at scale.

    The X-ray spectrograph is “like a microscope without lenses,” Buettner explains, so the image is reconstructed mathematically from the collected data, rather than physically by bending light beams using lenses. Lenses for X-rays exist, but they are very complex, and cost $40,000 to $50,000 apiece, he says.

    But an alternative way of reading the data may be possible, using an additional metal layer added to the other layers. By creating a particular texture on this added layer, it may be possible to detect differences in the layer’s electrical resistance depending on whether a skyrmion is present or not in the adjacent layer. “There’s no question it would work,” Buettner says, it’s just a matter of figuring out the needed engineering development. The team is pursuing this and other possible strategies to address the readout question.

    The team also included researchers at the Max Born Institute and the Institute of Optics and Atomic Physics, both in Berlin; the Institute for Laser Technologies in Medicine and Metrology at the University of Ulm, in Germany; and the Deutches Elektroniken-Syncrotron (DESY), in Hamburg. The work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and the German Science Foundation.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 3:19 pm on October 6, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , “Primer” - a new cube-shaped robot can be controlled via magnets to make it walk roll sail and glide., MIT,   

    From MIT: ““Superhero” robot wears different outfits for different tasks” 

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    September 27, 2017
    Adam Conner-Simons
    Rachel Gordon

    1
    Dubbed “Primer,” a new cube-shaped robot can be controlled via magnets to make it walk, roll, sail, and glide. It carries out these actions by wearing different exoskeletons, which start out as sheets of plastic that fold into specific shapes when heated. After Primer finishes its task, it can shed its “skin” by immersing itself in water, which dissolves the exoskeleton. Courtesy of the researchers.

    From butterflies that sprout wings to hermit crabs that switch their shells, many animals must adapt their exterior features in order to survive. While humans don’t undergo that kind of metamorphosis, we often try to create functional objects that are similarly adaptive — including our robots.

    Despite what you might have seen in “Transformers” movies, though, today’s robots are still pretty inflexible. Each of their parts usually has a fixed structure and a single defined purpose, making it difficult for them to perform a wide variety of actions.

    Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) are aiming to change that with a new shape-shifting robot that’s something of a superhero: It can transform itself with different “outfits” that allow it to perform different tasks.

    Dubbed “Primer,” the cube-shaped robot can be controlled via magnets to make it walk, roll, sail, and glide. It carries out these actions by wearing different exoskeletons, which start out as sheets of plastic that fold into specific shapes when heated. After Primer finishes its task, it can shed its “skin” by immersing itself in water, which dissolves the exoskeleton.

    “If we want robots to help us do things, it’s not very efficient to have a different one for each task,” says Daniela Rus, CSAIL director and principal investigator on the project. “With this metamorphosis-inspired approach, we can extend the capabilities of a single robot by giving it different ‘accessories’ to use in different situations.”

    Primer’s various forms have a range of advantages. For example, “Wheel-bot” has wheels that allow it to move twice as fast as “Walk-bot.” “Boat-bot” can float on water and carry nearly twice its weight. “Glider-bot” can soar across longer distances, which could be useful for deploying robots or switching environments.

    Primer can even wear multiple outfits at once, like a Russian nesting doll. It can add one exoskeleton to become “Walk-bot,” and then interface with another, larger exoskeleton that allows it to carry objects and move two body lengths per second. To deploy the second exoskeleton, “Walk-bot” steps onto the sheet, which then blankets the bot with its four self-folding arms.

    “Imagine future applications for space exploration, where you could send a single robot with a stack of exoskeletons to Mars,” says postdoc Shuguang Li, one of the co-authors of the study. “The robot could then perform different tasks by wearing different ‘outfits.’”

    The project was led by Rus and Shuhei Miyashita, a former CSAIL postdoc who is now director of the Microrobotics Group at the University of York. Their co-authors include Li and graduate student Steven Guitron. An article about the work appears in the journal Science Robotics on Sept. 27.

    Robot metamorphosis

    Primer builds on several previous projects from Rus’ team, including magnetic blocks that can assemble themselves into different shapes and centimeter-long microrobots that can be precisely customized from sheets of plastic.

    While robots that can change their form or function have been developed at larger sizes, it’s generally been difficult to build such structures at much smaller scales.

    “This work represents an advance over the authors’ previous work in that they have now demonstrated a scheme that allows for the creation of five different functionalities,” says Eric Diller, a microrobotics expert and assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Toronto, who was not involved in the paper. “Previous work at most shifted between only two functionalities, such as ‘open’ or ‘closed’ shapes.”

    The team outlines many potential applications for robots that can perform multiple actions with just a quick costume change. For example, say some equipment needs to be moved across a stream. A single robot with multiple exoskeletons could potentially sail across the stream and then carry objects on the other side.

    “Our approach shows that origami-inspired manufacturing allows us to have robotic components that are versatile, accessible, and reusable,” says Rus, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT.

    Designed in a matter of hours, the exoskeletons fold into shape after being heated for just a few seconds, suggesting a new approach to rapid fabrication of robots.

    “I could envision devices like these being used in ‘microfactories’ where prefabricated parts and tools would enable a single microrobot to do many complex tasks on demand,” Diller says.

    As a next step, the team plans to explore giving the robots an even wider range of capabilities, from driving through water and burrowing in sand to camouflaging their color. Guitron pictures a future robotics community that shares open-source designs for parts much the way 3-D-printing enthusiasts trade ideas on sites such as Thingiverse.

    “I can imagine one day being able to customize robots with different arms and appendages,” says Rus. “Why update a whole robot when you can just update one part of it?”

    This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 12:56 pm on September 29, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , CERN Open Data Portal, , MIT   

    From MIT: “First open-access data from large collider confirm subatomic particle patterns” 

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    September 29, 2017
    Jennifer Chu

    1
    The Compact Muon Solenoid is a general-purpose detector at the Large Hadron Collider. Image courtesy of CERN

    LHC

    CERN/LHC Map

    CERN LHC Tunnel

    CERN LHC particles

    In November of 2014, in a first, unexpected move for the field of particle physics, the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment — one of the main detectors in the world’s largest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider — released to the public an immense amount of data, through a website called the CERN Open Data Portal.

    The data, recorded and processed throughout the year 2010, amounted to about 29 terabytes of information, yielded from 300 million individual collisions of high-energy protons within the CMS detector. The sharing of these data marked the first time any major particle collider experiment had released such an information cache to the general public.

    A new study by Jesse Thaler, an associate professor of physics at MIT and a long-time advocate for open access in particle physics, and his colleagues now demonstrates the scientific value of this move. In a paper published in Physical Review Letters, the researchers used the CMS data to reveal, for the first time, a universal feature within jets of subatomic particles, which are produced when high-energy protons collide. Their effort represents the first independent, published analysis of the CMS open data.

    “In our field of particle physics, there isn’t the tradition of making data public,” says Thaler. “To actually get data publicly with no other restrictions — that’s unprecedented.”

    Part of the reason groups at the Large Hadron Collider and other particle accelerators have kept proprietary hold over their data is the concern that such data could be misinterpreted by people who may not have a complete understanding of the physical detectors and how their various complex properties may influence the data produced.

    “The worry was, if you made the data public, then you would have people claiming evidence for new physics when actually it was just a glitch in how the detector was operating,” Thaler says. “I think it was believed that no one could come from the outside and do those corrections properly, and that some rogue analyst could claim existence of something that wasn’t really there.”

    “This is a resource that we now have, which is new in our field,” Thaler adds. “I think there was a reluctance to try to dig into it, because it was hard. But our work here shows that we can understand in general how to use this open data, that it has scientific value, and that this can be a stepping stone to future analysis of more exotic possibilities.”

    Thaler’s co-authors are Andrew Larkoski of Reed College, Simone Marzani of the State University of New York at Buffalo, and Aashish Tripathee and Wei Xue of MIT’s Center for Theoretical Physics and Laboratory for Nuclear Science.

    Seeing fractals in jets

    When the CMS collaboration publicly released its data in 2014, Thaler sought to apply new theoretical ideas to analyze the information. His goal was to use novel methods to study jets produced from the high-energy collision of protons.

    Protons are essentially accumulations of even smaller subatomic particles called quarks and gluons, which are bound together by interactions known in physics parlance as the strong force. One feature of the strong force that has been known to physicists since the 1970s describes the way in which quarks and gluons repeatedly split and divide in the aftermath of a high-energy collision.

    This feature can be used to predict the energy imparted to each particle as it cleaves from a mother quark or gluon. In particular, physicists can use an equation, known as an evolution equation or splitting function, to predict the pattern of particles that spray out from an initial collision, and therefore the overall structure of the jet produced.

    “It’s this fractal-like process that describes how jets are formed,” Thaler says. “But when you look at a jet in reality, it’s really messy. How do you go from this messy, chaotic jet you’re seeing to the fundamental governing rule or equation that generated that jet? It’s a universal feature, and yet it has never directly been seen in the jet that’s measured.”

    Collider legacy

    In 2014, the CMS released a preprocessed form of the detector’s 2010 raw data that contained an exhaustive listing of “particle flow candidates,” or the types of subatomic particles that are most likely to have been released, given the energies measured in the detector after a collision.

    The following year, Thaler published a theoretical paper with Larkoski and Marzani, proposing a strategy to more fully understand a complicated jet in a way that revealed the fundamental evolution equation governing its structure.

    “This idea had not existed before,” Thaler says. “That you could distill the messiness of the jet into a pattern, and that pattern would match beautifully onto that equation — this is what we found when we applied this method to the CMS data.”

    To apply his theoretical idea, Thaler examined 750,000 individual jets that were produced from proton collisions within the CMS open data. He looked to see whether the pattern of particles in those jets matched with what the evolution equation predicted, given the energies released from their respective collisions.

    Taking each collision one by one, his team looked at the most prominent jet produced and used previously developed algorithms to trace back and disentangle the energies emitted as particles cleaved again and again. The primary analysis work was carried out by Tripathee, as part of his MIT bachelor’s thesis, and by Xue.

    “We wanted to see how this jet came from smaller pieces,” Thaler says. “The equation is telling you how energy is shared when things split, and we found when you look at a jet and measure how much energy is shared when they split, they’re the same thing.”

    The team was able to reveal the splitting function, or evolution equation, by combining information from all 750,000 jets they studied, showing that the equation — a fundamental feature of the strong force — can indeed predict the overall structure of a jet and the energies of particles produced from the collision of two protons.

    While this may not generally be a surprise to most physicists, the study represents the first time this equation has been seen so clearly in experimental data.

    “No one doubts this equation, but we were able to expose it in a new way,” Thaler says. “This is a clean verification that things behave the way you’d expect. And it gives us confidence that we can use this kind of open data for future analyses.”

    Thaler hopes his and others’ analysis of the CMS open data will spur other large particle physics experiments to release similar information, in part to preserve their legacies.

    “Colliders are big endeavors,” Thaler says. “These are unique datasets, and we need to make sure there’s a mechanism to archive that information in order to potentially make discoveries down the line using old data, because our theoretical understanding changes over time. Public access is a stepping stone to making sure this data is available for future use.”

    This research was supported, in part, by the MIT Charles E. Reed Faculty Initiatives Fund, the MIT Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the National Science Foundation.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 10:25 am on September 4, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , MIT, Team gathers unprecedented data on atmosphere’s organic chemistry   

    From MIT: “Team gathers unprecedented data on atmosphere’s organic chemistry” 

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    September 4, 2017
    David L. Chandler

    Colorado forest study provides clearest-ever picture of gases released into the atmosphere and how they change.

    1
    “The goal was trying to understand the chemistry associated with organic particulate matter in a forested environment,” associate professor Jesse Kroll explains. “We took a lot of measurements using state-of-the-art instruments we had developed.” The team also took many photos while in Colorado. Pictured on the bottom right is Douglas Day, CU researcher and organizer of the field campaign. Courtesy of the researchers.

    For a few weeks over the summer in 2011, teams of scientists from around the world converged on a small patch of ponderosa pine forest in Colorado to carry out one of the most detailed, extended survey of atmospheric chemistry ever attempted in one place, in many cases using new measurement devices created especially for this project. Now, after years of analysis, their comprehensive synthesis of the findings have been released this week.

    The teams, which included a group from MIT using a newly-developed device to identify and quantify compounds of carbon, reported their combined results in a paper in the journal Nature Geoscience. Jesse Kroll, MIT associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and of chemical engineering, and James Hunter, an MIT technical instructor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering who was a doctoral student in Kroll’s group at the time of the research, were senior author and lead author, respectively, of the 24 contributors to the report. Associate Professor Colette Heald of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering was also a co-author.

    The organic (carbon-containing) compounds they studied in that patch of Colorado forest play a key role in atmospheric chemical processes that can affect air quality, the health of the ecosystem, and the climate itself. Yet many of these processes remain poorly understood in their real-world complexity, and they had never been so rigorously sampled, studied, and quantified in one place before.

    “The goal was trying to understand the chemistry associated with organic particulate matter in a forested environment,” Kroll explains. “The various groups took a lot of different measurements using state-of-the-art instruments we each had developed.” In doing so, they were able to fill in significant gaps in the inventory of organic compounds in the atmosphere, finding that about a third of them were in the form of previously unmeasured semi-volatile and intermediate-volatility organic compounds (SVOCs and IVOCs).

    “We’ve long suspected there were gaps in our measurements of carbon in the atmosphere,” Kroll says. “There seemed to be more aerosols than we can explain by measuring their precursors.”

    The MIT team, as well as some of the other research groups, developed instruments that specifically targeted these hard-to-measure compounds, which Kroll describes as “still in the gas phase, but sticky.” Their stickiness makes it hard to get them through an inlet into a measuring device, but these compounds may play a significant role in the formation and alteration of aerosols, tiny airborne particles that can contribute to smog or to the nucleation of raindrops or ice crystals, affecting the Earth’s climate.

    “Some of these instruments were used for the first time in this campaign,” Kroll says. When analyzing the results, which provided unprecedented measurements of the SVOCs and IVOCs, “we realized we had this data set that provided much more information on organic compounds than we ever had before. By bringing the data from all these instruments together into one combined dataset, we were able to describe the organic compounds in the atmosphere in a more comprehensive way than had ever been possible, to figure out what’s really going on.”

    It’s a more complicated challenge than it might seem, the researchers point out. A very large number of different organic compounds are constantly being emitted by trees and other vegetation, which vary in their chemical composition, their physical properties, and their ability to react chemically with other compounds. As soon as they enter the air many of the compounds begin to oxidize, which exponentially increases their number and diversity.

    The collaborative campaign to characterize the quantities and reactions of these different compounds took place in a section of the Manitou Experimental Forest Observatory in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Five different instruments were used to collect the data on organic compounds, and three of those had never been used before.

    Despite the progress, much remains to be done, the researchers say. While the field measurements provided a detailed profile of the amounts of different compounds over time, it could not identify the specific reactions and pathways that were transforming one set of compounds to another. That kind of analysis requires the direct study of the reactions in a controlled laboratory setting, and that kind of work is ongoing, in Kroll’s MIT lab and elsewhere.

    Filling in all these details will make it possible to refine the accuracy of atmospheric models and help to assess such things as strategies to mitigate specific air pollution issues, from ozone to particulate matter, or to assess the sources and removal mechanisms of atmospheric components that affect Earth’s climate.

    The measurement team included researchers from the University of Colorado, the California Air Resources Board, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Toronto, the University of Innsbruck in Austria, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the Edmund Mach Foundation in Italy, Harvard University, the University of Montreal, Aerodyne Research, Carnegie-Mellon University, the University of California at Irvine, and the University of Washington. The work was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 11:05 am on August 22, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Alcator C-Mod tokamak at MIT, , MIT, UK’s Joint European Torus (JET) Europe’s largest fusion device,   

    From MIT: “Fusion heating gets a boost” 

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    August 21, 2017
    Paul Rivenberg | Plasma Science and Fusion Center

    1
    The interior of the Alcator C-Mod tokamak, where experiments were conducted that have helped create a new scenario for heating plasma and achieving fusion. Photo: Bob Mumgaard/Plasma Science and Fusion Center

    In the quest for fusion energy, scientists have spent decades experimenting with ways to make plasma fuel hot and dense enough to generate significant fusion power. At MIT, researchers have focused their attention on using radio-frequency (RF) heating in magnetic confinement fusion experiments like the Alcator C-Mod tokamak, which completed its final run in September 2016.

    Now, using data from C-Mod experiments, fusion researchers at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC), along with colleagues in Belgium and the UK, have created a new method of heating fusion plasmas in tokamaks. The new method has resulted in raising trace amounts of ions to megaelectronvolt (MeV) energies — an order of magnitude greater than previously achieved.

    “These higher energy ranges are in the same range as activated fusion products,” PSFC research scientist John C. Wright explains. “To be able to create such energetic ions in a non-activated device — not doing a huge amount of fusion — is beneficial, because we can study how ions with energies comparable to fusion reaction products behave, how well they would be confined.”

    The new approach, recently detailed in the journal Nature Physics, uses a fuel composed of three ion species hydrogen, deuterium, and trace amounts (less than 1 percent) of helium-3. Typically, plasma used for fusion research in the laboratory would be composed of two ion species, deuterium and hydrogen or deuterium and He-3, with deuterium dominating the mixture by up to 95 percent. Researchers focus energy on the minority species, which heats up to much higher energies owing to its smaller fraction of the total density. In the new three-species scheme, all the RF energy is absorbed by just a trace amount of He-3 and the ion energy is boosted even more — to the range of activated fusion products.

    Wright was inspired to pursue this research after attending a lecture in 2015 on this scenario by Yevgen Kasakov, a researcher at the Laboratory for Plasma Physics in Brussels, Belgium, and the lead author of the Nature Physics article. Wright suggested that MIT test these ideas using Alcator C-Mod, with Kasakov and his colleague Jef Ongena collaborating from Brussels.

    At MIT, PSFC research scientist Stephen Wukitch helped developed the scenario and run the experiment, while Professor Miklos Porkolab contributed his expertise on RF heating. Research scientist Yijun Lin was able to measure the complex wave structure in the plasma with the PSFC’s unique phase contrast imaging (PCI) diagnostic, which was developed over the last two decades by Porkolab and his graduate students. Research scientist Ted Golfinopoulos supported the experiment by tracking the effect of MeV-range ions on measurements of plasma fluctuations.

    The successful results on C-Mod provided proof of principle, enough to get scientists at the UK’s Joint European Torus (JET), Europe’s largest fusion device, interested in reproducing the results.

    3
    UK’s Joint European Torus (JET), Europe’s largest fusion device

    “The JET folks had really good energetic particle diagnostics, so they could directly measure these high energy ions and verify that they were indeed there,” he says. “The fact that we had a basic theory realized on two different devices on two continents came together to produce a strong paper.”

    Porkolab suggests that the new approach could be helpful for MIT’s collaboration with the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Greifswald, Germany, where research is ongoing on one of the fundamental physics questions: How well fusion-relevant energetic ions are confined.

    KIT Wendelstein 7-X, built in Greifswald, Germany

    The Nature Physics article also notes that the experiments could provide insight into the abundant flux of He-3 ions observed in solar flares.

    Like JET, C-Mod operated at magnetic field strength and plasma pressure comparable to what would be needed in a future fusion-capable device. The two tokamaks also had complementary diagnostic capabilities, making it possible for C-Mod to measure the waves involved in the complex wave-particle interaction, while JET was able to directly measure the MeV-range particles.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 10:01 am on August 12, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: An academic trend toward project-based curricula, Facebook had this Facebook Open Academy that got students from multiple universities and paired them up with open-source projects, MIT, Open-source entrepreneurship, Open-source software is free software whose underlying code or “source code” is also freely available, Some of the best known are the Linux operating system the Firefox web browser and the WordPress blogging platform, The goal of the new MIT class was a public software release   

    From MIT: “Open-source entrepreneurship” 

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    August 11, 2017
    Larry Hardesty

    1
    MIT Professor Saman Amarasinghe’s undergraduate course on initiating and managing open-source development projects had no exams or problem sets. Assignments included consulting with mentors, interviewing users, writing a promotional plan — and, of course, leading the development of an open-source application.Image: MIT News.

    New project-based course lets undergrads lead the development of open-source software.

    Open-source software is free software whose underlying code, or “source code,” is also freely available. Open-source development projects often involve hundreds or even thousands of volunteer coders scattered around the globe. Some of the best known are the Linux operating system, the Firefox web browser, and the WordPress blogging platform.

    This past spring, MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science Saman Amarasinghe offered 6S194 (Open-Source Entrepreneurship), a new undergraduate course on initiating and managing open-source development projects. The course had no exams or problem sets; instead, the assignments included consulting with mentors, interviewing users, writing a promotional plan — and, of course, leading the development of an open-source application.

    The course is an example of an academic trend toward project-based curricula, which have long had vocal supporters among educational theorists but have drawn renewed attention with the advent of online learning, which turns lectures and discussions into activities that students can pursue on their own schedules.

    But where many project-based undergraduate engineering classes result in designs or products that may not make it out of the classroom, the goal of the new MIT class was a public software release, complete with marketing campaign. And the students learned not only the technical skills required to complete their projects, but the managerial skills required to initiate and guide them.

    The creation of the course had a number of different motivations, Amarasinghe explains. “MIT is a very structured place, and we ask so much of our students, sometimes they don’t have time to do anything interesting outside,” he says. “When you talk to students, they say, ‘We have ideas, but without credit, we don’t have time to do it.’”

    “The other thing that happened was that for the last three, four years, Facebook had this Facebook Open Academy that got students from multiple universities and paired them up with open-source projects,” Amarasinghe adds. “What I found was a lot of times MIT students were somewhat bored with some of those projects because it’s hard to meet MIT expectations. We have much higher expectations of what the kids can do.”

    A third factor, Amarasinghe says, is that many research projects in computer science spawn software that, even though it represents hundreds of hours of work by brilliant coders, never makes it out of the lab. Open-source projects that clean that software up, fill in gaps in its functionality, and create interfaces that make it easy to use could mean that researchers working on related projects, instead of building their own systems from scratch, could modify the code of existing systems, saving a huge amount of time and energy.

    Entrepreneurial expectations

    Classes for Open-Source Entrepreneurship were divided between lectures and “studio” time, in which teams of students could work on their projects. Amarasinghe lectured chiefly on technical topics, and Nick Meyer, entrepreneur-in-residence at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, lectured on topics such as market research and marketing. During studio time, both Amarasinghe and Meyer were available to advise students.

    Before the class launched, Amarasinghe and his teaching assistant, Jeffrey Bosboom, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, had identified several MIT research projects that they thought could be the basis of useful open-source software. But students were free to propose their own projects.

    After selecting their projects, the students’ first task was to meet with — or, in the case of the students who proposed their own projects, identify and then meet with — mentors, to sketch out the scope and direction of the projects. Then, for each project, the students had to identify and interview four to six potential users of the resulting software, to determine product specifications.

    “When you start out with the project, you have certain preconceptions about what the problem is and what you have to do to solve that problem,” says Stephen Chou, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, who audited the course. “One of the first things we had to do was to look for potential users of our project, and when you talk to them, you realize that the priorities that you start out with aren’t necessarily the right ones. At the same time, some of the people we talked to were working in fields that were completely unfamiliar, at least to me. So you start learning more about their problems, and sometimes you get completely new ideas. It’s a good way to orient yourself. That was new to me, and it was very helpful.”

    The third stage of the project was the establishment of a software development timeline, and at the end of the semester, as the projects drew to completion, the students’ final assignment was the development of a promotional plan.

    The projects

    Several of the class projects built on software prototypes that had been developed by the students themselves — or by their friends. One project, Gavel, was a system for scoring entries in contests such as science fairs or hackathons, in which teams of programmers develop software to meet specific criteria over the space of days. The initial version had been written by an MIT undergrad who was himself a frequent hackathon participant, and two of his friends agreed to use Amarasinghe’s course to turn the software into an open-source project.

    Typically, hackathon judges use some sort of absolute rating scale, but this is a notoriously problematic approach: Different judges may calibrate the scales differently, and over the course of a contest, judges may recalibrate their own scales if they find that, in assigning their first few scores, they over- or underestimated the competition.

    A better approach is to ask judges to perform pairwise comparisons. Comparisons are easier to aggregate across judges, and individual judgments of relative value tend not to fluctuate. Gavel is a web-based system that sequentially assigns judges pairs of contestants to evaluate, selecting the pairs on the fly to ensure that the final cumulative ranking will be statistically valid.

    Another of the projects, Homer, also reflects the preoccupations of undergraduates at a technical university. Homer is based on psychological research on the frequency with which factual information must be repeated before it will reliably lodge itself in someone’s memory. It’s essentially a digital flash-card system, except that instead of picking cards entirely at random, it cycles them through at intervals selected to maximize retention.

    Other projects, however, grew out of academic research at MIT. One project — dubbed Taco, for tensor algebra compiler — was based on yet-unpublished research from Amarasinghe’s group. A tensor is the higher-dimensional analogue of a matrix, which is essentially a table of data. Mathematical operations involving huge tensors are common in the Internet age: All the ratings assigned individual movies by individual Netflix subscribers, for instance, constitute a three-dimensional tensor.

    If the tensors are sparse, however — if most of their entries are zero — there are computational short cuts for manipulating them. And again, in the internet age, many tensors are sparse: Most Netflix subscribers have rated only a tiny fraction of the movies in Netflix library.

    Taco provides a simple, intuitive interface to let data scientists describe operations involving sparse and nonsparse tensors, and the underlying algorithms automatically generate the often very complicated computer code for executing those operations as efficiently as possible.

    Other projects from the class — such as an interface for a database of neural-network models, or a collaborative annotation tool designed for use in the classroom — also grew out of MIT research. But no matter the sources of the projects, the students were the ones steering them to completion.

    “They had a lot more ownership of a project than being part of a very large project that has thousands of contributors, finding a few bugs or adding a few features,” Amarasinghe says. “They got to think of the big-picture issues — how to build a community, how to attract other programmers, what sort of licensing should be used. MIT students should be the ones who are doing new open-source projects and leading some of these things.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 11:07 am on August 4, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , collections of ultracold molecules can retain the information stored in them for hundreds of times longer than researchers have previously achieved in these materials, MIT, , , Ultracold molecules hold promise for quantum computing   

    From MIT: “Ultracold molecules hold promise for quantum computing” 

    MIT News
    MIT Widget

    MIT News

    July 27, 2017
    David L. Chandler

    1
    This vacuum chamber with apertures for several laser beams was used to cool molecules of sodium-potassium down to temperatures of a few hundred nanoKelvins, or billionths of a degree above absolute zero. Such molecules could be used as a new kind of qubit, a building block for eventual quantum computers. Courtesy of the researchers.

    New approach yields long-lasting configurations that could provide long-sought “qubit” material.

    Researchers have taken an important step toward the long-sought goal of a quantum computer, which in theory should be capable of vastly faster computations than conventional computers, for certain kinds of problems. The new work shows that collections of ultracold molecules can retain the information stored in them, for hundreds of times longer than researchers have previously achieved in these materials.

    These two-atom molecules are made of sodium and potassium and were cooled to temperatures just a few ten-millionths of a degree above absolute zero (measured in hundreds of nanokelvins, or nK). The results are described in a report this week in Science, by Martin Zwierlein, an MIT professor of physics and a principal investigator in MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics; Jee Woo Park, a former MIT graduate student; Sebastian Will, a former research scientist at MIT and now an assistant professor at Columbia University, and two others, all at the MIT-Harvard Center for Ultracold Atoms.

    Many different approaches are being studied as possible ways of creating qubits, the basic building blocks of long-theorized but not yet fully realized quantum computers. Researchers have tried using superconducting materials, ions held in ion traps, or individual neutral atoms, as well as molecules of varying complexity. The new approach uses a cluster of very simple molecules made of just two atoms.

    “Molecules have more ‘handles’ than atoms,” Zwierlein says, meaning more ways to interact with each other and with outside influences. “They can vibrate, they can rotate, and in fact they can strongly interact with each other, which atoms have a hard time doing. Typically, atoms have to really meet each other, be on top of each other almost, before they see that there’s another atom there to interact with, whereas molecules can see each other” over relatively long ranges. “In order to make these qubits talk to each other and perform calculations, using molecules is a much better idea than using atoms,” he says.

    Using this kind of two-atom molecules for quantum information processing “had been suggested some time ago,” says Park, “and this work demonstrates the first experimental step toward realizing this new platform, which is that quantum information can be stored in dipolar molecules for extended times.”

    “The most amazing thing is that [these] molecules are a system which may allow realizing both storage and processing of quantum information, using the very same physical system,” Will says. “That is actually a pretty rare feature that is not typical at all among the qubit systems that are mostly considered today.”

    In the team’s initial proof-of-principle lab tests, a few thousand of the simple molecules were contained in a microscopic puff of gas, trapped at the intersection of two laser beams and cooled to ultracold temperatures of about 300 nanokelvins. “The more atoms you have in a molecule the harder it gets to cool them,” Zwierlein says, so they chose this simple two-atom structure.

    The molecules have three key characteristics: rotation, vibration, and the spin direction of the nuclei of the two individual atoms. For these experiments, the researchers got the molecules under perfect control in terms of all three characteristics — that is, into the lowest state of vibration, rotation, and nuclear spin alignment.

    “We have been able to trap molecules for a long time, and also demonstrate that they can carry quantum information and hold onto it for a long time,” Zwierlein says. And that, he says, is “one of the key breakthroughs or milestones one has to have before hoping to build a quantum computer, which is a much more complicated endeavor.”

    The use of sodium-potassium molecules provides a number of advantages, Zwierlein says. For one thing, “the molecule is chemically stable, so if one of these molecules meets another one they don’t break apart.”

    In the context of quantum computing, the “long time” Zwierlein refers to is one second — which is “in fact on the order of a thousand times longer than a comparable experiment that has been done” using rotation to encode the qubit, he says. “Without additional measures, that experiment gave a millisecond, but this was great already.” With this team’s method, the system’s inherent stability means “you get a full second for free.”

    That suggests, though it remains to be proven, that such a system would be able to carry out thousands of quantum computations, known as gates, in sequence within that second of coherence. The final results could then be “read” optically through a microscope, revealing the final state of the molecules.

    “We have strong hopes that we can do one so-called gate — that’s an operation between two of these qubits, like addition, subtraction, or that sort of equivalent — in a fraction of a millisecond,” Zwierlein says. “If you look at the ratio, you could hope to do 10,000 to 100,000 gate operations in the time that we have the coherence in the sample. That has been stated as one of the requirements for a quantum computer, to have that sort of ratio of gate operations to coherence times.”

    “The next great goal will be to ‘talk’ to individual molecules. Then we are really talking quantum information,” Will says. “If we can trap one molecule, we can trap two. And then we can think about implementing a ‘quantum gate operation’ — an elementary calculation — between two molecular qubits that sit next to each other,” he says.

    Using an array of perhaps 1,000 such molecules, Zwierlein says, would make it possible to carry out calculations so complex that no existing computer could even begin to check the possibilities. Though he stresses that this is still an early step and that such computers could be a decade or more away, in principle such a device could quickly solve currently intractable problems such as factoring very large numbers — a process whose difficulty forms the basis of today’s best encryption systems for financial transactions.

    Besides quantum computing, the new system also offers the potential for a new way of carrying out precision measurements and quantum chemistry, Zwierlein says.

    “These results are truly state of the art,” says Simon Cornish, a professor of physics at Durham University in the U.K., who was not involved in this work. The findings “beautifully reveal the potential of exploiting nuclear spin states in ultracold molecules for applications in quantum information processing, as quantum memories and as a means to probe dipolar interactions and ultracold collisions in polar molecules,” he says. “I think the results constitute a major step forward in the field of ultracold molecules and will be of broad interest to the large community of researchers exploring related aspects of quantum science, coherence, quantum information, and quantum simulation.”

    The team also included MIT graduate student Zoe Yan and postdoc Huanqian Loh. The work was supported by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the U.S. Army Research Office, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 12:07 pm on July 31, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: MIT, Siberian Traps, Underground magma pulse triggered end-Permian extinction,   

    From MIT: “Underground magma pulse triggered end-Permian extinction” 

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    July 31, 2017
    Jennifer Chu

    Study ties specific interval during an extended period of volcanism to Earth’s most severe mass extinction.

    Geologists from the U.S. Geological Survey and MIT have homed in on the precise event that set off the end-Permian extinction, Earth’s most devastating mass extinction, which killed off 90 percent of marine organisms and 75 percent of life on land approximately 252 million years ago.

    In a paper published today in Nature Communications, the team reports that about 251.9 million years ago, a huge pulse of magma rose up through the Earth, in a region that today is known as the Siberian Traps. Some of this molten liquid stopped short of erupting onto the surface and instead spread out beneath the Earth’s shallow crust, creating a vast network of rock stretching across almost 1 million square miles.

    As the subsurface magma crystallized into geologic formations called sills, it heated the surrounding carbon-rich sediments and rapidly released into the atmosphere a tremendous volume of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases.

    “This first pulse of sills generated a huge volume of greenhouse gases, and things got really bad, really fast,” says first author and former MIT graduate student Seth Burgess. “Gases warmed the climate, acidified the ocean, and made it very difficult for things on land and in the ocean to survive. And we think the smoking gun is the first pulse of Siberian Traps sills.”

    Getting to extinction’s roots

    Since the 1980s, scientists have suspected that the Earth’s most severe extinction events, the end-Permian included, were triggered by large igneous provinces such as the Siberian Traps — expansive accumulations of igneous rock, formed from protracted eruptions of lava over land and intrusions of magma beneath the surface. But Burgess was struck by a certain incongruity in such hypotheses.

    “One thing really stuck out as a sore thumb to me: The total duration of magmatism in most cases is about 1 million years, but extinctions happen really quickly, in about 10,000 years. That told me that it’s not the entire large igneous province driving extinction,” says Burgess, who is now a research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey.

    He surmised that the root cause of mass extinctions might be a shorter, more specific interval of magmatism within the much longer period over which large igneous provinces form.

    Digging through the data

    Burgess decided to re-examine geochronologic measurements he made as a graduate student in the lab of Samuel Bowring, the Robert R. Shrock Professor of Geology in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

    In 2014 and 2015, he and Bowring used high-precision dating techniques to determine the timing of the end-Permian mass extinction and ages of ancient magmatic rocks that the team collected over three field expeditions to the Siberian Traps.

    From the rocks’ ages, they estimated this magmatic period started around 300,000 years before the onset of the end-Permian extinction and petered out 500,000 years after the extinction ended. From these dates, the team concluded that magmatism in the Siberian Traps must have had a role in triggering the mass extinction.

    But a puzzle remained. Even while lava erupted in massive volumes hundreds of thousands of years prior to the extinction, there has been no evidence in the global fossil record to suggest any biotic stress or significant change in the climate system during that period.

    “You’d expect if these lavas are driving extinction, you’d see global evidence of biosphere decline,” Burgess says.

    When he looked back through the group’s data, he noticed that rocks dated within the 300,000-year window prior to the start of the extinction were almost exclusively volcanic, meaning they formed from lava that erupted onto land. In contrast, the subsurface sills only started to appear just before the start of the extinction, 251.9 million years ago.

    “I realized the oldest sills out there correspond, bang-on, with the start of the mass extinction,” Burgess says. “You don’t have any negative effects occurring in the biosphere when you’ve got all this lava erupting, but the second you start intruding sills, the mass extinction starts.”

    Revised timeline

    Based on his new observations of the data, Burgess has outlined a refined, three-stage timeline of the processes that likely triggered the end-Permian extinction. The first stage marks the start of widespread eruptions of lava over land, 252.2 million years ago. As the lava spews out and solidifies over a period of 300,000 years, it builds up a dense, rocky cap.

    The second stage starts at around 251.9 million years ago, when the lava cap becomes a structural barrier to subsequent lava eruption. Instead, acending magma stalls and spreads beneath the lava cap as sills, heating up carbon-rich sediments in the Earth and releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere — almost precisely when the mass extinction event began. “These first sills are the key,” Burgess says.

    The last stage begins around 251.5 million years ago, as the release of gases slows, even as magma continues to intrude into the sediments.

    “At this point, the magma has already degassed the basin of most of its volatiles, and it becomes more difficult to generate large volumes of volatiles from a basin that’s already been cooked,” Burgess explains.

    A culprit for other extinctions?

    Could similarly short pulses of sills have triggered other mass extinctions in Earth’s history? Burgess looked at the geochronologic data for three other extinction events which scientists have found to coincide with large igneous provinces: the Cretaceous-Plaeogene, the Triassic/Jurassic, and the early Jurassic extinctions.

    For both the Triassic/Jurassic, and the early Jurassic extinction events, he found that the associated large igneous provinces contained significant networks of sills, or intrusive magma, emplaced into sedimentary basins that likely hosted volatile gases. In these two cases, the extinction trigger might have been an initial short pulse of intrusive magma, similar to the end-Permian.

    However, for the Cretaceous-Paleogene event — the extinction that killed off the dinosaurs — Burgess noted that the large igneous province that was erupting at the time is primarily composed of lavas, not sills, and was erupted into granitic rock, not a gas-rich sedimentary basin. Thus, it likely did not release enough greenhouse gases to exclusively cause the dinosaur die-off. Instead, Burgess says a combination of lava eruptions and the Chicxulub asteroid impact was likely responsible.

    “Large igneous provinces have always been blamed for mass extinctions, but no one has really figured out if they’re really guilty, and if so, how it was done,” Burgess says. “Our new work takes that next step and identifies which part of the large igneous province is guilty, and how it committed the crime.”

    The paper’s co-authors are Bowring and J.D. Muirhead, of Syracuse University. The research was supported, in part, by a U.S. Geological Survey Mendenhall Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, which was awarded to Burgess.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 8:49 am on July 31, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Lindy Elkins-Tanton, MIT, ,   

    From MIT: Women in STEM – “Exploring an unusual metal asteroid” Lindy Elkins-Tanton 

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    July 25, 2017
    Alice Waugh, MIT Alumni Association

    3
    As principal investigator of the Psyche mission, Lindy Elkins-Tanton ’87, SM ’87, PhD ’02 is just the second woman to lead a NASA spacecraft mission to a planetary body. The first was her former MIT colleague, Vice President for Research Maria Zuber. Photo: Arizona State University.

    Alumna and former MIT professor Lindy Elkins-Tanton is working with MIT faculty in her role as principal investigator for NASA’s upcoming Psyche mission.

    NASA Psyche spacecraft

    Lindy Elkins-Tanton ’87, SM ’87, PhD ’02 is reaching for the stars — literally. She is the principal investigator for Psyche, a NASA mission that will explore an unusual metal asteroid known as 16 Psyche.

    The mission does not launch until 2023, but preparations have begun in collaboration with faculty in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). Professors Benjamin Weiss and Maria Zuber, who also serves as MIT’s vice president for research, wrote a paper about the asteroid with Elkins­-Tanton that was the basis for the team’s selection for NASA’s Discovery Program. MIT Professor Richard Binzel is also a team member.

    At MIT, Elkins-Tanton earned BS and MS degrees in geology and geochemistry with a concentration on how planets form. Then she detoured from academia to the business world before becoming a college lecturer in mathematics in 1995.

    “I realized that in academia, you have this incredible privilege of always being able to ask a harder, bigger question, so you never get bored, and you have the opportunity to inspire students to do more in their lives,” says Elkins-Tanton. She returned to MIT to earn a PhD in geology and geophysics, and for the next decade after completing that degree, she taught, first at Brown University and then at MIT as an EAPS faculty member.

    Since 2014, Elkins-­Tanton has been professor and director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University.

    She has been revamping the undergraduate curriculum to give it more of an MIT flavor, bringing current research into the classroom and having students tackle real-world problems. This approach has helped her transmit excitement about the field to her students.

    Elkins-Tanton also draws on business skills that she says are quite useful for scientific collaboration: negotiating, making a compelling pitch, and knowing how to build a team that works well. She is applying those skills, along with her management and leadership experience, as the second woman to lead a NASA mission to a major solar system body (after Zuber, who was principal investigator of the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, or GRAIL, mission).

    Psyche represents a compelling target for study because scientists theorize that it was an ordinary asteroid until violent collisions with other objects blasted away most of its outer rock, exposing its metallic core. This core, the first to be studied, could yield insights into the metal interior of rocky planets in the solar system.

    “We have no idea what a metal body looks like. The one thing I can be sure of is that it will surprise us,” Elkins-Tanton says. “I love this stuff — there are new discoveries every day.”

    See the full article here .
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  • richardmitnick 1:42 pm on July 12, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , MIT, Preventing severe blood loss on the battlefield or in the clinic, Reginald Avery   

    From MIT: “Preventing severe blood loss on the battlefield or in the clinic” Reginald Avery 

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    July 11, 2017
    Dara Farhadi

    1
    At MIT graduate student Reginald Avery has been conducting research on a biomaterial that could stop wounded soldiers from dying from shock due to severe blood loss. “I wanted to do something related to the military because I grew up around that environment,” he says. “The people, the uniformed soldiers, and the well-controlled atmosphere created a good environment to grow up in, and I wanted to still contribute in some way to that community.” Photo: Ian MacLellan

    PhD student Reginald Avery is developing an injectable material that patches ruptured blood vessels.

    In a tiny room in the sub-basement of MIT’s Building 66 sits a customized, super-resolution microscope that makes it possible to see nanoscale features of a red blood cell. Here, Reginald Avery, a fifth-year graduate student in the Department of Biological Engineering, can be found conducting research with quiet discipline, occasionally fidgeting with his silver watch.

    He spends most of his days either at the microscope, taking high-resolution images of blood clots forming over time, or at the computer, reading literature about super-resolution microscopy. Without windows to approximate the time of day, Avery’s watch comes in handy. Not surprisingly for those who know him, it’s set to military time.

    Avery describes his father as a hard-working inspector general for the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command. Avery and his fraternal twin brother, Jeff, a graduate student in computer science at Purdue University, were born in Germany and lived for a portion of their childhoods on military bases in Hawaii and Alabama. Eventually the family moved to Maryland and entered civilian life, but Avery’s experiences on a military base never left him. At MIT he’s been conducting research on a biomaterial that could stop wounded soldiers from dying from shock due to severe blood loss.

    “I wanted to do something related to the military because I grew up around that environment,” he says. “The people, the uniformed soldiers, and the well-controlled atmosphere created a good environment to grow up in, and I wanted to still contribute in some way to that community.”

    Blocking blood loss

    Avery is one of the first graduate students to join the Program in Polymers and Soft Matter (PPSM) from the Department of Biological Engineering. When he first joined the lab of Associate Professor Bradley Olsen in the Department of Chemical Engineering, his focus was on optimizing and testing a material that could be topically applied to wounded soldiers.

    The biomaterial is a hydrogel — a material consisting largely of water — with a viscosity similar to toothpaste. Gelatin proteins and inorganic silica nanoparticles are incorporated into the material and function as a substrate that helps to accelerate coagulation rates and reduce clotting times.

    Co-advised by Ali Khademhosseini at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and in collaboration with others at Massachusetts General Hospital, Avery further developed the material so that it could be injected into ruptured blood vessels. Like a cork on a wine bottle, the biomaterial forms a plug in the leaky vessel and stops any blood loss. Avery’s research was published in Science Translational Medicine and featured on the front cover of the November 2016 issue.

    The current standard for patching blood vessels is imperfect. Surgeons typically use metallic coils, special plastic beads, or compounds also found in super glue. Each technology has limitations that the nanocomposite hydrogel attempts to address.

    “The old techniques don’t take advantage of tissue engineering. It can be difficult for a surgeon to deliver metallic coils and beads to the targeted site, and blood may sometimes still find a path through and result in re-bleeding. It’s also expensive, and some techniques have a finite time period to place the material where it needs to be,” Avery says. “We wanted to use a hydrogel that could completely fill a vessel and not allow any leakage to occur through that injury site.”

    The nanocomposite, which can be injected easily with a syringe or catheter, has been tested in animal models without causing inflammatory side-effects or the formation of clots elsewhere in the animal’s circulatory system. Some in vitro experiments also indicate that the material could be useful for treating aneurysms.

    For the past six months Avery has concentrated on uncovering the physical mechanism by which the nanocomposite material interacts with blood. A super-resolution microscope can achieve a resolution of 250 nanometers; a single red blood cell, for a comparison, is about 8,000 nanometers wide. Avery says the ability to visualize how the physiological molecules and proteins interact with the nanocomposite and other surgical tools may also help him design a better material. Obtaining a comprehensive view of the process, however, can be time-consuming.

    “It’s taking snapshots every 10 or 20 seconds for approximately 30 minutes, and putting all of those pictures together,” he says. “What I want to do is visualize these gels and clots forming over time.”

    Found in translation

    While he is eager to see his material put to use to save lives, Avery is glad to be contributing to the work at the basic and translational research stages. He says he’s driven to appropriately characterize a treatment or biomaterial, ask the right questions, and make sure it functions just as well as, or better than, what is currently used in the clinic.

    “I’m comfortable doing a thorough study in vitro to characterize materials or design some synthetic tests prior to in vivo testing,” he says. “You must be very confident in [the biomaterial] before getting to that step so that you’re effectively utilizing the animals, or even more important, you’re not putting a person at risk if something finally does get to that point.”

    Avery also finds meaning in collaborating and helping others with their research. He has worked on projects using neutron scattering to elucidate the network structure of a homo-polypeptide, performed cell culture on thermoresponsive hydrogels, and developed highly elastic polypeptides, projects that Avery says aren’t directly applicable to his thesis work of treating internal bleeding. However, he was happy to have simply had the experience of learning something new.

    “If I can help somebody with something then I’m going to try to do the best that I can. Whether it’s a homework assignment or something in lab, my goal is not to leave somebody worse off,” Avery says. “If there’s something I’ve done in the past that could help you now, I’m excited to show you and hopefully have it work out well for you. If it doesn’t, we can talk even longer to try to figure out what we could do to make it work better.”

    Of the seven papers that Avery has been involved in over the past three years, almost half were collaborative projects outside the area of his thesis work.

    Avery hopes to finish his PhD thesis by the summer of next year. Afterward, he envisions working for a research institute that is devoted to a single disease or condition, or perhaps for a research center associated with a hospital within the military health system so that he could continue developing biomaterials, diagnostics, or other approaches to help soldiers.

    “I’m usually excited to help somebody get something done or get something done for my project. It’s always exciting to get closer to determining the optimum concentration that you need, seeing that one data point that’s higher than the others, or getting that nice image that shows the effect that you have hypothesized,” Avery says. “That’s still a motivating aspect of coming to lab, to eventually get those results. It can take a long time to get there but once you do, you appreciate the journey.”

    See the full article here .

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